On a bleak winter’s day in the Thousand Islands region of New York, Carol Seaborg is visiting a lakeside lighthouse with her six-year-old child when she sees an older woman abducted by a man she suspects is a murderer known as the Daylight Serial Killer. She grows obsessed with the woman, believing that if she “talks” to her, imagining the abducted woman’s every move, she can help keep her alive.
Given that brief summary, Abducted by Circumstance, a new novel by acclaimed Knoxville-born author David Madden, sounds like a poolside page-turner. Yet this quiet and finely crafted novel is less a psychological thriller than an engrossing, complex exploration of a troubled woman’s identity. It is also a daring narrative experiment in point of view.
As the novel opens, Carol is standing with her daughter Melissa on frozen Lake Ontario. The ice pings, threatening fissure, “heaving, like a sleeping person’s chest—ice breaking up down there, crying out in the twilight.” This powerful image suggests Carol’s state of mind, which becomes more fragile as the story unfolds. She has taken to going for drives, often toting Melissa along: “Her sudden excursions when her husband was out were not to watch, but simply to go, to be gone, going anywhere, as far away as any given free time would allow.” On this day, she happens to be witness to the abduction of Glenda Mitchell, a high profile arts advocate and wife of a prominent physician who is suffering from cancer and on the verge of death.
In Carol’s eyes, Glenda is everything that she is not, “a woman who could carry off any whim, but not a woman of mere whim, a purposeful woman, most of the time, a career woman, not a housewife, except when she wanted to play that role, too.” Carol is immediately consumed with imagining Glenda’s experiences with her captor, and she begins addressing Glenda as if she has telepathic power to control her.
In short, Carol constructs a reality for Glenda (and for the reader) while simultaneously sifting back through her own. “The story I am imagining may not actually be your story, but any story that keeps you alive will somehow, in the realm of the spirit, help you,” she thinks, addressing Glenda. “I see you talking him out of it. I even see you persuading him to surrender and face the consequences. If not, I see you overpowering him. … He has met his match.”
Carol’s vision of Glenda—confident, successful, poised, and destined not to be a victim—sheds light on her own heartbreaking sense of limitation, a life singed with everyday sorrows. Disappointing experiences with men explain much of her discontent: a boyfriend who died in the Gulf War; an affair with a married lawyer; two pale, cold marriages of her own; and a father who is aloof and belittling. Jack, Carol’s taciturn second husband, is a countertop installer who at first seemed to her “like firm earth under my feet,” but now, when he deigns to speak to her, “always uses that tone of voice that says, You who know nothing.” He’s trolling for porn on the computer when he’s not off with the boys. (And where he goes, he won’t tell her.) For Carol, talking to Glenda is clearly an escape from this reality: “No, Jack, you get out of this picture!” she thinks, when he slips into one of her Glenda reveries.
Carol’s mother, a respected nurse, committed suicide—shot herself in the very home where Carol lives now, a poignant and foreboding detail—and at thirty-five, Carol has drifted away from an education that might have led her to follow in her mother’s professional footsteps. After the suicide, she says, “I rushed into the nursing program but dropped out when Jack kept saying, How can you see the house my mother keeps and let ours go like this?”
Carol has long been smothered in silence: her parents’, her husband’s, her own inability to speak up for herself. So it is fitting that she would strike up a one-sided conversation with a woman she will never know, a woman she can never be, becoming literally “of two minds,” as she describes her growing absorption, and to a nearly crippling extent.
At times, it is difficult to sympathize with Carol, because it is all but impossible to lift the cloak of obsession in which she’s wrapped. Her mind is indeed abducted by her absorption in Glenda—just as she herself is held captive by the circumstances of her hemmed-in life, which she lays bare over the course of the novel. Increasingly, for Carol, Glenda is “almost a third passenger in the car, sometimes beside her, sometimes in the back seat beside Melissa.”
Another complicating element is the way this novel is narrated—a seamless blend of first person and third-person, limited-omniscient, as in this passage: “She was aware that now that she had Glenda to worry about and talk to, she did not feel the same urgent need to tour routinely the scenes of her misfired pursuits and her missed opportunities and her fantasy futures as a diversion from her present situations. James’ wife in the flesh could ruin her whole day. Nothing must distract me from you, Glenda.” Often, Carol addresses Glenda directly in first person, right on the heels of a paragraph in third person; in addition, there are full conversations of imagined dialogue between Glenda and her abductor, and it’s occasionally difficult to keep track of which character the “I” refers to in these passages—Carol, Glenda, or her abductor.
Madden’s hybrid narration of first and third person flies in the face of everything that most creative writing professors tell their students about the rules of point of view—and it’s therefore a great example of how the rules, such as they are, can be broken to powerful effect. Readers will likely be evenly divided about whether Madden’s strategy is masterfully innovative, contributing to a powerful intellectual experience of a fractured mind, or needlessly befuddling, standing in the way of engagement with this extraordinarily sad creature. But there is no question that it is a case of literary experimentation that befits its subject matter.
In the end, Carol is struggling toward empowerment as she learns to use Jack’s computer and explores the Internet for the first time—a neat turn for the central character in a book about human communication, its mysteries and failures. “Now I feel alive to everyone and everything about me,” she muses. “You gave me a purpose. Even a mission. To help you save yourself.” It’s not at all clear what Carol’s future holds, but true happiness seems unlikely. “Over here sits me, attuned to every sound of water and every break of icicle and cry of hawk and eagle and every bark of dog or doglike creature, and neither of us blissful,” she muses. “What I’m saying to you now, Glenda, I’ve said before, to Jack, and got a grunt, and have debated trying it out on Father. In the next life, maybe.”